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September 11, 2006

History and War: The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession - (Eds.) Williamson Murray and R. H. Sinnreich

Posted by Jeremy Black

The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession
edited by Williamson Murray and R. H. Sinnreich
Pp. x+287. Cambridge University Press, 2006
Hardback, 45; Paperback, 14.99

Based on conference papers, this collection argues for the importance of historical awareness to successful command, not least in the face of contrary pressures including the cult of modernity and the sense of technological transformation.

Each of the fourteen chapters are interesting, and, of the more historical pieces, Andrew Gordon's examination of the Royal Navy from Trafalgar to Jutland helps explain how Jellicoe's over-determined control style foolishly neglected the historical lessons of command initiative that should have been derived from Nelsonian conflict. Jonathan Bailey indicates how the lessons of the Russo-Japanese War, not least the value of indirect fire, were neglected. J. Paul Harris praises the General Staff, but is critical of Liddell Hart, Fuller and Chamberlain, in his perceptive examination of the British army's response to challenges in the 1920s and 1930s, not least the issue of armour.

Michael Howard's more introductory piece affirms the central thesis of the book, and has some interesting remarks to make about War and Society and the need to focus on fighting. Colin Gray offers a brilliant defence of the relevance of Clausewitz, arguing that, as long as the future world remains a strategic world, Clausewitz's general theory of war will be apposite. In his discussion of History and the nature of strategy, John Gooch is not always as clear as he might be, writing that (p. 143):

When we ascend to the highest rung of strategic activity, national or "grand strategy", history comes into its own - but almost by default - absent any sizeable body of theoretical or normative literature written from a military point of view.
The genesis of the volume as an Anglo-American project focused on current concerns - the background to many conferences and collections - helps explain its central flaw, which is a lack of sufficient consideration of non-Western military traditions. For these, it is more helpful to look at this reviewer's Rethinking Military History (Routledge, 2004), while there are also reflections of interest in Stephen Morillo and Michael Pavkovic's What is Military History? (Polity, 2006).

Unfortunately, most writing on military history neglects this sphere or treats it in the misleading fashion of the diffusion of paradigmatic Western patterns. The relationship between strategic cultures and the role of historical imagination also requires more attention.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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